Comfort Eating: A Common Cause of Unhealthy Weight Gain

Many people when they’re under stress eat, not to satisfy their hunger, but to lower their level of emotional arousal. Tamara Ecclestone is a typical example. She’s the glamorous daughter of Bernie Ecclestone, the multi-million pound controller of Formula One racing. She was plunged into a state of absolute despair when her parents split up, a traumatic experience she describes as ‘the worst thing I’ve ever been through’. To cope, she took refuge in binge-eating. As she later confessed : ‘I just ate everything. I would drink a bottle of wine every night then order a Domino’s pizza, McDonald’s and chocolate fudge cakes from Marks and Spencer.’ This went on for weeks, during which time her figure grew more and more rotund. It was only when she saw a paparazzi picture of herself that she realised how gross she’d become. She was several sizes bigger than ever before, a calamity she’s now overcome by curbing her predilection to comfort eat. Mental problems may be assuaged by eating, but this is never their solution. Psychologists believe that this displacement activity probably starts at a very early age, since a study of five hundred severely obese children in Holland revealed that nearly one in three came from one-parent families.

Whenever we’re under pressure, stress hormones are produced which flood our blood streams with fats and sugars. This is an atavistic response, which served a useful purpose when our cave dwelling ancestors came face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger. In that situation they needed a sudden injection of fuel to prepare their bodies for ‘fight or flight’. Today we’re rarely called on to make a vigorous defensive response. We may be annoyed by our neighbours, but rarely punch them on the nose. We may be terrified by a humungous tax demand, but realise that it can’t be escaped by running away. As a result our bodies are flooded with fuel, which since it’s superfluous, is quickly transmitted to our fat stores. This often leads to a state of reactive hypoglycaemia, which encourages us to eat junk foods to boost our low blood sugar levels. If this eases our angst, we quickly develop the habit of eating whenever we’re uncomfortably aroused, just us a fretful child will hug a teddy bear or stroke its comfort blanket. Some people

who keep food diaries discover that they eat primarily when they’re bored. Others when they’re tired, tense, depressed or lonely. Whatever the trigger factor, the problem will never be solved by eating. Far better to treat the cause, than palliate the symptoms. If you’re tired put your feet up and have a snooze. If you’re lonely, phone a friend. If you’re tense, have a relaxing bubble bath. If you’re depressed, take a brisk walk or go ten-pin bowling. This is a highly successful strategy, as three American researchers found when they studied a group of women who all lost weight by dieting. Some quickly regained the pounds they’d shed, whereas the others were able to maintain weight losses of 30 lb or more for nineteen years. One of the differences, as one might expect, is that the maintainers continued to take more exercise. (Nine out of ten taking at least a half-hour’s exercise three or more times a week. ) The other was that the maintainers learnt to deal directly with their emotional stresses and strains rather than resort to comfort eating. They learnt to relax and deal with problems directly as and when they occurred. As one reported at the end of the study: ‘‘I know I overeat when I’m stressed. But when I accept the problem and do something about it the overeating disappears.’

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